To celebrate Black Panther coming out this week and T'Challa being so frigging awesome in general, I will be giving you Five Days of Black Panther to build up to the film's release.
Each day, I will be covering a different era and creative team of Black Panther (today will be covering two, technically) starting with T'Challa's first appearance in Fantastic Four #52: "The Black Panther," which carried over to Fantastic Four #53: "The Way It Began." Both issues were by the legends themselves, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
I will also be reviewing these stories, even if it does feel silly to evaluate a book by Lee and Kirby. However, no work is beyond analysis and criticism. It's also worth mentioning that this is a book from 1966, so some of its quirks haven't aged well. We'll get to that.
The story, for the uninitiated, is as follows. The Fantastic Four receive a mysterious invite from an "African chieftain" from a mysterious African nation called Wakanda. The FF are taken aback by the incredible advanced technology displayed by the Wakandan emissaries.
The Four, plus Johnny Storm's roommate and buddy Wyatt Wingfoot, fly to the nation in a flying Wakandan vehicle. They land in something of a technological jungle created by the genius minds of the nation. Before long, they are ambushed by the Black Panther.
Using his skills, wit, and the traps set up in this "technological jungle," he separates and individually subdues the Fantastic Four with relative ease. Wyatt Wingfoot, who is far more resourceful than the Panther could have suspected, is able to turn the tide, and the FF corner the mysterious Black Panther. He reveals to them that he is the "African chieftain" that summoned them, T'Challa. He is the ruler of Wakanda.
Fantastic Four #53 follows the story, with T'Challa putting together a proper celebration for the arrival of the FF. He explains that he was testing his skills against the team in the hopes that he is finally capable of taking down the Klaw, the self-proclaimed Master of Sound.
He explains that the Klaw invaded Wakanda for its Vibranium and killed T'Chaka, T'Challa's father and the previous ruler of the land. This happened 10 years prior to the day, and T'Challa expects the Klaw to return once more for the nation's Vibranium.
Sure enough, massive red beasts begin appearing at Wakanda's borders, and the Klaw launches a new invasion. The Fantastic Four holds off the massive sound-construct beasts that assail Wakanda's city while the Black Panther himself tracks down the Klaw, finally defeating the dastardly rogue.
After this, T'Challa thanks the Fantastic Four, and the team departs Wakanda with a new friend and ally in the Black Panther.
In retrospect, it really was ballsy of Marvel to put out a book like this at the height of the strife over the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In 1966, things were still tense as hell, and people were still being killed over this issue.
It was still far from perfect, of course. The huts-and-loincloths cover that Wakanda used shows that Lee and Kirby didn't really know much about real African nations and were still drawing upon imagery from Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard novels. The fact that the celebration T'Challa throws for the FF includes a "dance of friendship" doesn't help matters.
Then there is Invisible Woman. The kickass co-leader of more recent FF comics who brings the emotional intelligence that Mr. Fantastic lacks, it's pretty painful to see how waifish and easily frightened Sue Storm-Richards was back in the day.
There is also the verbosity of the Stan Lee script. While there was a charm to the conversational nature of his narration, it had a bad tendency to over-explain just about every damn concept in the comic book. The dialogue was just as bad. Granted, these were far more targeted at an audience of children back then, but it's still way more text-heavy than it needed to be.
Kirby's artwork, excellently supported by Joe Sinnott's inking, is as wild and creative as ever. The "tech jungle" that Panther set up to ensnare the FF had a certain alien quality to it that still dazzles today. The color work is bright and otherworldly. There was something to be said about the brilliant simplicity of T'Challa's costume, for sure. The sound-monsters created by the Klaw look slightly off compared to the animals they are emulating, and that creates a wonderful weirdness in itself. Kirby's artwork is timeless and tends to age very well, and this comic demonstrates that beautifully.
I actually read these two issues in the 100-page special celebrating T'Challa's 35th anniversary from Christopher Priest, Sal Velluto, and Bob Almond. My dad picked this up when it came out in 2001 and still had it for me to read. That being said, Black Panther: The Sound and the Fury from this past week also had these two issues at the back, and you can pick that up if you want to reread the origins of T'Challa. I certainly enjoyed it, and I think you will too.